Wednesday 18 July 2012

To Michael Gove: Free schools? Yes. But free thinkers too please.

Prologue - Education from my perspective

First, a bit of disclosure. I went to two state primary schools (one in rural Fife, another in the suburbs of Aberdeen). I then moved to an independent (fee-paying, academically selective, coeducational) secondary school (also in Aberdeen). My (completely anecdotal) experience of state and non-state provision was that the independent sector was generally much more flexible to individual student needs, better disciplined, fostered a stronger sense of community and made much better provision for a range of extra-curricular activities for those who wished to pursue them.

I hazard all of the above with important caveats. I cannot say that my experience is necessarily typical, or that I am comparing like with like (primary v secondary). I would observe also that my experiences of rural state education was markedly better in most respects than at the suburban city primary, even though the former was, on reflection, far less well financially resourced. I would also point out that both state schools had some very good teachers, and the independent school some teachers that were frankly not. What I would say, though, is that my own experiences of a fairly broad range of education have left me relatively ideologically unattached to the idea of the state as the dominant force in education, and sympathetic to ways of bringing what works from the independent sector, where possible, to a wider audience.

It should, of course, be recognised that fees and the funding discrepancy across sectors is not insignificant. The cost of the 6 years of my secondary education would have been more than £10kpa in today's money. Private education is not cheap, and as far as fees go in both Scotland and England, this is pretty much the floor, rather than the ceiling. This compares to an average spend of £6.2k per pupil in England's state sector (2009-10), and an average spend of £6.65k per pupil in Scotland (2008-09). This additional expense (without rebate for not using the state sector) puts private educational provision ahead in terms of resources and facilities, but also puts it out of the reach of many families from otherwise reasonably comfortable backgrounds.

Parallels with a Minister

Indeed if it wasn't for an extensive bursary scheme, I could not have gone to my independent secondary school. I was the beneficiary of an organisation set up to widen access to one of the highest performing schools in Scotland. I was not the only one. By coincidence, the independent secondary school I attended was also attended by a certain Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. He too relied on assistance of this kind to be able to access independent education.

Almost regardless of political persuasion, people have looked to the independent sector to see how state schooling might be improved. We've seen numerous approaches tried and tested, from academically tiered local authority schools, to grant maintained schools, to academies and, yes, ultimately to free schools. The latter is an idea which is not alien to other countries, with the likes of Sweden and the USA having equivalents of state-funded but relatively administratively autonomous schools, given less stringent requirements to comply with in respect of the National Curriculum or equivalent document. Even in Scotland, the hyper-state-comprehensive nation, has an anomaly or two, including Jordanhill School in Glasgow, which is funded directly from central government and not subject to conventional local authority control.

For many liberals though, Michael Gove, in his Education brief, has proved infuriating and intriguing in wildly varying measures. One the one hand, he talks the talk on academies and free schools, forcefully arguing that they provide a credible alternative for those who are not satisfied with the alternative provision. All too often the state education system is seen as increasingly centralised and bureaucratic, either to the local authority or to central government itself. The freedom to innovate and come up with new, more interesting and effective ways of teaching young people skills is stifled by an overly prescriptive National Curriculum and an obsession with teaching to the test in a way which only serves to promote mediocrity. His expansion of the academies scheme and introduction of free schools has served to challenge an educational establishment which has otherwise become too comfortable with its pre-existing structures.

Gove's (religious) conservative streak

On the other hand, Gove has courted some of the most blindingly idiotic (if not *that* significant) policies of this government that remind you why he's a Tory and not a bona fide liberal reformer. First there was that infamous vanity project in which he sought to deliver a King James Bible to every English primary and secondary school under the disingenuous guise of its "contribution to our language and our democracy". But now this has been supplemented by the approval of three free schools by organisations which hold creationism to be scientific fact and have stated their intent to teach it as such.

Case for the defence

Now some may (correctly) point out that religious organisations already run a lot of schools. The Church of England run a considerable number, and in Scotland a great number of state schools are designated Roman Catholic. Even our notionally "non-denominational" schools typically have a Church of Scotland minister attached to them as a chaplain. So in some respects the Department of Education's decision to allow these groups to open schools is only an extension of the status quo. Indeed the official Department of Education advice specifically states that they "do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school." Indeed none of these groups maintain that they will teach creationism/ID in the science classroom as alternatives to evolution.

Creationism, Faith Schooling, and the State

However, there are principally two problems with this. The first is that an education is not compartmentalised. Just because a non-evolutionary theory is being taught as fact in an RE class or an assembly, does not mean that it somehow exists in an immunised bubble from what pupils learn in the biology or chemistry lab. Something that is science fiction (and let us be clear, creationism is every bit as science fiction as Star Wars) is being propagated as an institutionally recognised truth to impressionable young people at the same time as they are being introduced to ideas of scepticism, the scientific method, and testing assertions against an evidential burden.

By sending mixed messages under the big tent of a school, you are saying that contradictory claims are simultaneously true, or worse still harming their ability to rationalise and develop critical thought in their approach to their academic studies. A less scientifically literate population is more likely to hold on to these palpably ridiculous ideas like that the world is 6000 years old. They are even going to be less likely to develop critical approaches to present scientific paradigms, slowing human progress by leaving society to waste its energies on a battle long since resolved for just about anyone who has paid any attention.

But actually, the greater harm isn't creationism in schools. It is the reality that state funding for schools run by or with involvement from religious groups is tacit institutional approval of their belief system and a licence to proselytise the impressionable. When the state lets the Church of England run a school or the Scottish education system assigns a Church of Scotland parish minister to a school, or designates a state school as a Roman Catholic one, or when the state provides funding to an educational establishment pushing creationism over and above other belief systems, it is saying something important.

It is not, as others have suggested to me, simply saying that parents have the right to choose a school for their children, which educates in accordance with their beliefs (and to be clear, it IS the parents' beliefs). It is saying that these people have a right to insist that the general taxpayer (including atheists, agnostics, ignostics, theists of other creeds etc) contribute towards, and facilitate the goals of that organisation. This is not morally acceptable. Religion is rightly a matter of deep personal sincerity and importance and no one should interfere with your right to hold your beliefs and to live your life in adherence to them (so long as it doesn't harm others). But it is precisely because of this that we should not allow free schools to become a back-door for religious organisations to take state money.

The purpose of state education is to provide a minimum standard of teaching, according to established criteria of critical thinking and skills development. There are different ways to achieve that, and free schools definitely provide an opportunity to set-up competing modes of teaching and learning environments to help the state sector work out which ones are most popular and which ones are less effective. Genuine competition on quality of provision does improve standards and could help shift power from educational institutions to parents, teachers and pupils themselves.

State education does NOT exist to maximise the capacity for parents to have their beliefs approved of and institutionally normalised around their children so as to make them more likely to accept those beliefs in later life. There are other ways these views can be communicated to their children, through out-of-school education within religious communities, or even, "God forbid", by the setting up of a religious independent school. If these organisations truly have a demand for such faith-based schooling, there is no good reason why they need state approval or support to set-up schools with wide access, including through philanthropy for those who could not afford any "fees".

Now I'm not saying that I'd personally approve of private faith-based schools; I'd hold them in as much contempt for a degree of indoctrination of the impressionable just like a state school. But at least they don't have anything like the same degree of institutional approval or endorsement. They would live and die on their merits; not muddle by regardless on their government block grant.

Religion and education were historically linked, and no one is denying that religious orders were important in the development of the idea of education as a public good. But we are not a Christian country any more. We are not a religious country any more. We live in an increasingly secular society and our state has to reflect that. Our values are not as reliant on our religious history as we once thought it was and most of the religious institutions in our society are playing perpetual catch-up with society's attitudes. It is despite rather than because of their institutional privilege that we have changed our views on homosexuality, women's rights, abortion and many other issues besides.

It wouldn't be a post this long without a reference to The West Wing, so I'll finish by paraphrasing the views of the irreligious Republican Senator Arnold Vinick of California:
Our state education system can teach our children many things from science to the humanities and the arts, but if you want to teach your child about religion, please... go to church.

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